The Internet has undergone some significant changes over the years, from a small and obscure message board networks used by a tiny portion of society to a ubiquitous and essential aspect of our everyday lives. But it is not just the functionality and pervasiveness of websites that have changed, but website design aspects as well. And, no, we’re not talking about visual trends—though they have certainly changed a lot over time.
In this post, we’re going to explore some of the more fundamental aspects of website design that have changed since the earliest days of the World Wide Web and the Internet as we know it today.
The ’90s were a veritable wild west for website design. Though HTML (hypertext markup language) was the foundation that web browsers were built on, there was no consensus or cooperation around the things that were layered on top of that foundation. This invariably led to web browsers having entirely unique sets of features (and ways of doing things) to make up for any shortcomings in the HTML language.
The end result? A nightmare for any website designer who wanted their website to look right regardless of the browser it was viewed in. Internet Explorer was notorious in this respect, but Netscape, IE’s biggest rival at the time, was no saint.
These days, standards compliance is seen as an essential foundation for any browser. This allows web designers to code their websites in a way that they can be confident will work, no matter what browser it is viewed in. And, degrade gracefully so that the content of the website will always be readable, even if other aspects are not working correctly.
Another problem that stemmed from the lack of coherent standards in the ’90s was accessibility issues. But this problem extended to the visual aspects of design as well.
Accessibility refers to how usable a website is for a wide range of people, including people with disabilities, such as reduced hearing or vision. Having no universal standard made it almost impossible for software like screen readers—which read the contents of the screen out loud for people with impaired vision—to be accurate and effective all of the time.
Beyond that, a plague of noisy animated background images and poor choices of font color sometimes made websites almost impossible to read, even for people with good eyesight. These days, accessibility is taken very seriously. In fact, web design firms will often put their sites through intensive user experience testing before going live.
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Websites did have to contend with different screen sizes in the ’90s, but there were far fewer options, and they were all broadly the same shape. These days, there is a seemingly endless array of screen shapes and resolutions that people use to access the Internet.
This has led to responsive website development. Unlike the static pages of the ’90s, responsive modern websites seamlessly shift their layout to suit the shape and resolution of the screen, allowing a single website design to perform just fine, no matter the device it’d being viewed on.
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